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Directory software market buzzing

Microsoft's acquisition of Zoomit last week anticipates future moves and underscores the increasing importance being placed on the technology by all corners of the industry.

Microsoft's acquisition of Zoomit last week underscores the increasing importance being placed on "directory" software technology from all corners of the industry.

Until recently, Microsoft has ceded much of the development of the market to network software provider Novell and others. But the industry has now turned to directory software technology as a panacea for the variety of information currently stored in various computer systems on a network.

This week, several more announcements are expected to follow.

What may have once seemed odd to some---a directory market---seems possible now that Microsoft is intending to deliver a corporate class directory and Novell, the early pro-directory pundit, has evolved its strategy so that NDS is its flagship technology.

A directory serves as a central database, or repository, for a variety of information concerning users, systems, and network devices. The software operates in a fashion akin to a "yellow pages," allowing an administrator to access and manipulate a sophisticated array of data found on a network.

Since a directory could become the centerpiece for the administration of information found on a corporate or public network, the niche is attracting the interest of a wide range of companies, from Oracle and IBM to networking giant Cisco Systems. A number of smaller firms, such as FastLane Technologies, Oblix, and Mission Critical Software, are also vying for a piece of the action.

This month might be remembered as a watershed moment for directory technology, given the variety of moves being made in what has been one of computing's geekier niches. Among the expected developments from various players:

  • The release of details later today concerning new Novell technology that's intended to tie its Novell Directory Services, or NDS, into other directories, forming what is sometimes called a "meta directory." The new software, known internally as Virtual Replica, as previously reported, is meant to provide a unifying software layer for the variety of storage methods currently used by applications. Novell executives have previously said the technology will be available by the end of this year.

  • Cisco, a company that has a high-profile partnership with Microsoft, will soon release a network management software tool called User Registration Tracking that will utilize Novell's NDS directory, according to sources.

  • Despite Cisco's upcoming acknowledgement of Novell's technology, later today it plans to re-affirm its partnership with Microsoft, extending its contract with the software giant to continue the working on various software projects, according to sources. Among the joint development work underway are effort to tie Cisco's networking software into Active Directory, the next-generation technology that will be a part of Microsoft's Windows 2000 server upgrade, formerly known as Windows NT.

    The moves follow Microsoft's Zoomit purchase and last week's announcement of a new standards effort being championed by IBM and Novell.

    Observers say directory software has the potential to be the "glue" that ties internal and external systems together in a secure way. For instance, a corporation may want to invite certain close partners onto its internal network so they can access useful information. Directory technology provides a sophisticated way for a company to decide what information they might want to make available, for example.

    "The directory is going to be the cornerstone of any [computing] environment going forward," said Todd Chipman, an analyst with industry consultants Giga Information Group.

    Chipman said he expects the nascent directory market to be responsible for billions of dollars in revenue for software companies over the next five years. "It's definitely a hot place to be right now," said Chipman.

    On Redmond's radar
    Most observers expect the Redmond, Washington-based firm to rapidly gain market share due to the expected popularity of its forthcoming Windows 2000 server operating system upgrade and the inclusion of Active Directory. Microsoft has made directory software a priority as it seeks to gain a greater foothold in corporate computing.

    With Zoomit's technology, Microsoft can quickly add high-end capabilities to Active Directory. "It's taking meta directory technology and putting it into the mainstream," said Peter Houston, an Active Directory product manager for Microsoft.

    To some, Redmond's purchase is an acknowledgement that the internal development work being done to re-vamp the company's directory would not be enough to satisfy the corporate customers it will increasingly go after.

    "I think Microsoft is brilliantly pragmatic," said Ron Palmeri, vice president of business development at Oblix, a business software company that has bet much of its future on the increasing prevalence of directory systems. "As we've seen in every product category, they're doggedly persistent."

    "The problem is people have many of these directories," said David Waugh, vice president of marketing for FastLane Technologies, a company that makes software that utilizes directories to perform management functions. "It's just a huge opportunity."

    From Microsoft's perspective, the impending release of Windows 2000, along with the inter-operability directory technology acquired from Zoomit, makes the company's software more palatable for higher-end computing tasks. By adding Zoomit's software to Active Directory (expected in the aftermath of Windows 2000), Microsoft will essentially be able to be a software "peer" to other directories.

    "Microsoft finally legitimates directories with Active Directory itself," Giga's Chipman noted. They've realized the importance of moving outside the homogenous world they're used to.